Monday, 29 August 2011

Conan The Barbarian



Something familiar, Something peculiar, Something for everyone: A CROMedy tonight!

Conan The Barbarian 2011 USA
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Screening at UK cinemas

Ok... so last night I saw a new peplum called Conan The Barbarian. True, it’s not a peplum in the absolute strictest sense of the word (just like John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars and Assault on Precinct 13 aren’t technically Westerns, although you’d be hard pressed to find anyone refuting that claim) since it’s an American made tale of the mighty Cimmerian... and this is fitting since Conan was created, after all, by a young man by the name of Robert E. Howard of Cross Plains, Texas in 1932.

The movie I watched, however, does harken back to the traditions of the Maciste and Hercules pictures that were churned out year after year by the Italian film industry. Granted, it’s not as close in style to these movies, perhaps, as the original 1982 movie of the same title, but it’s certainly another stab at the US sword and sandal epics that kickstarted the whole peplum cycles in the first place (right back in the silent movie era if memory serves me right... and I know if it doesn’t then one of you lot will jump on here and have a moan at me in the comments section, I hope).

And it gets better. Not only was it a fair to middling peplum... although very much with a modern (or should that be postmodern?) flavour, but it’s also not a terrible version of Conan, so that’s not so bad then. Granted, it’s not quite got the feel the original stories had when they were published in such pulps as Weird Tales, but the character has certainly been injected with a certain gutsiness which is pretty basic if you’re going to make a movie about this kind of character.

The classic image of Conan is not that of the ones depicted on the occasional cover of Weird Tales magazine, who may well have been best represented by an actor like Victor Mature, but those put out by both Marvel Comics in the 70s and in the illustration work of the late, great Frank Frazetta. Which is fine because that was also closer to Howard’s Conan than the images depicted on the pulp covers.

This Conan is, thankfully, not a straight remake of the 1982 movie, however it is also nowhere near it’s equal and, unfortunately, makes some of the same mistakes as that one did... and when I say mistakes I am merely commenting on the faults of the process of adaptation as I see them applied here.

Now Robert E. Howard’s stories are the way I knew Conan as a kid... and for some reason the quote “I’ll split your head like a ripe melon” is spiralling it’s way back from the past to me. I have to say though, if this phrase were the only qualification to make a great movie from the Cimmerian’s adventures then both the Conan The Barbarian movies are excellent adaptations (I’m gonna forget about Conan The Destroyer because the Conan’ness of it was torn from it and it was reduced to being a second rate Sinbad movie... with Grace Jones in it). However, what I remember from these stories is that they were all fairly short. If my hazy memory serves me well then I think I’m right in thinking that Howard only wrote one full novel... one set much later in Conan’s chronology, when he was a king and had a son. The shorts were always quite episodic and although a rough chronology could be put together from them, they were mostly never a part of a larger arc and usually started when Conan was always just on his way to or from somewhere else where he’d had untold adventures.

The films are therefore not the best format to adapt this character to because you have to impinge your own narrative structure on them. Howard’s other character Soloman Kane had a whole movie made a year or so ago about a back story that he never wrote... but that one at least was on a level with the 1982 Conan movie in terms of watchability. Both the 1982 and the 2011 movies have gone for a revenge story surrounding the death of Conan’s parents when he was a child (indeed, the new one makes the death of his father into almost the reveal of Charles Bronson’s character in Once Upon A Time In The West)... both run in slightly different directions and both properly bring in black magical arts and sorcery, as they should. It has to be said though that the new Conan The Barbarian also uses a ridiculous and tired old concept of a divided symbol or talisman (in this case a mask) of which the restoration of all the pieces will allow a sacrificial ritual to be performed and evil to rise. In the pre-credits sequence (which actually uses a few dialogue lines in voice over which were used in the 1982 movie’s pre-credits sequence) we are even shown the mask smashed into uneven segments. Funny then, I thought to myself as the bad guy in this movie did his thing, how those segments just snap back into place like an old Aurora model kit with no glue or anything needed... considering it had been, you know, smashed into pieces and all.

This Conan, like the 1982 version, has various set-pieces linked together by the underlying narrative but each of these set-pieces does follow a progression (unlike the 1982 original which had a few things going off into their own tangents) and while this probably makes for a stronger movie for some audiences, I somehow found it a bit of a turn off and another step away from the spirit of Howard’s Conan. That being said, I’m sure Howard would have gone on to write many more, tightly structured Conan novels had he lived... but he shot himself at the age of 30.

There were a fair few Conan novels written and published by other writers in the 70s when I were a lad (it was almost impossible to go in any bookshop in those days and not see 30 or so different novels depicting a half-naked Conan attacking some foul creature of dark sorcery while a similarly half-naked girl looked on). However, I can’t really look on these as official Conan stories and so I can only compare the film to the original novels and, obviously, films in a similar vein from the past.

Where I stand with the new one is that it gets a few things right and a few things wrong... and we’re left with something which is not quite Conan but enjoyable all the same... although, to be fair, it does drag in some places.

So what did it get right and where did it go wrong?

Well it was pretty violent, Conan was pretty ruthless and there was mention and obvious links and references in the movie to his days as a “freebooter”. This is all good stuff. Unfortunately, for all this it still got a bit boring in places and there were not enough examples of monsters or sorcery. The one big scene where Conan had to fight invincible soldiers spawned from the sand drags on far too long and just was not a great action sequence. He needed to fight a skeleton or a snake humanoid or something more Conan-ish I fear... and possibly find himself seduced by an evil enchantress. This one didn’t quite cut it because it felt like everything in this movie had to have a reason for happening... and Conan was never really like that as far as I can remember. Things just happened to him.

Also, Tyler Bates score is quite competent and useable but it's not the absolute masterpiece of scoring that we got from the late Basil Poledouris for the 1982 movie. That one is constantly flagged up as being one of the greatest movie scores ever written, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the more famous scores by Rosza, Herrmann and Bernstein so... well really, Tyler Bates had a lot to live up to and he does a serviceable job.

So I’d recommend this movie to a point but I’d have to say that this one didn’t nearly nail it as much as the 1982 movie did and also I’d have to personally proclaim this as one of the noisiest action movies ever. This continues the tradition of movie sound effects started in From Russia With Love of having the thuds, clangs and suchlike turned up way past their natural sound setting. Yep, all the sounds are dialled up to 11 on the mix in Conan The Barbarian. So you might want to have a think about giving your eardrums the gift of cotton wool before you go into the cinema. Also... the 3D was, as usual in contemporary movies, completely unnecessary. So there’s that.

All in all then, a mostly fun, enjoyable film but it’s not nearly as much as being in the spirit of the original Conan stories as the original movie was (which is a hard act to follow since that one was written by John Milius and Oliver Stone)... or even as much of a Conan movie as The Scorpion King was to be honest. Recommended with caution on the understanding that this is only the second best Conan movie ever made... like I said, we don’t mention Conan The Destroyer around these parts.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Skin I Live In (aka La Piel Que Habito)



Skins Of The Father

The Skin I Live In (aka La Piel Que Habito)
2011 Spain
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Screening at UK cinemas

There are no spoilers in this review as such. That’s because there’s not a heck of a lot I could give away and the one big twist in this movie (which in a way is the only spoiler I could give... the fact that this movie does indeed have a twist)... is quite a major thing and, itself, gets revealed about two thirds of the way through the movie. I didn’t figure out what it was myself until about 20 minutes before it was revealed during a series of flashback sequences and I blame my own assumptions and expectations from seeing the trailer and some publicity stills for not getting there way sooner (more on that in a moment) like most people would.

One thing I will say though is that I’m kinda glad, in a way, that I wasn’t aware of the nature of the twist before going to see the film because the subject matter holds no interest for me and I would have simply not bothered going to see this if I’d known. Which would have been a shame because I’ve found myself inadvertently following this director’s career since I first saw Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (aka Átame!) at the Lumiere cinema back in 1990. That was also the last film that Antonia Banderas worked on with his muse Almodóvar before “going international” and becoming something of a Big Hollywood Movie Star. His return to the Almodóvar brand, and it really is a brand at this point, is very welcome and although I had trouble with certain aspects of the movie, Banderas is his usual, brilliant self in this film.

Now when I saw the trailer for this movie and some of the beautiful stills from it, I immediately assumed this movie would be a dual homage to both Jess Franco’s 1961 movie The Awful Doctor Orloff and Georges Franju’s 1960 movie Eyes Without A Face... and I suppose in some ways it’s lineage could certainly be traced back there. However, the film lacks the post-modernistic referencing I get from most movies these days... that is to say, Almodóvar’s homage in this particular instance was a lot more subtle than I thought it would be... I think I’ve become brainwashed by the blatant eclecticism of lots of modern American movies to appreciate the low-key homage that is going on here. Almodóvar quite rightly serves the story first and foremost... and not the collective geekiness of people like myself.

The pre-publicity also got me thinking that the movie would be serving as a continuation of the long tradition of masked heroes and anti-heroes established in early 1900s French pulp literature and it’s influence... you know, Eric from Phantom of the Opera, Fantômas... maybe even a little of the Italian Diabolik thrown in for good measure. Not to mention characters such as Kriminal and Satanik! Alas, although certain elements of the style of the imagery from these does find it’s way into this movie, this is in no way intentional (I believe) and is just another symptom of the visual devices used to service the story... which, of course, is exactly what it should be.

Now Almodóvar is a bit hit and miss for me but, in recent years, he’s been far more hit than miss and I have to say that the trailer didn’t sell this as being your typical Almodóvar movie (if there’s such a thing as a typical Almodóvar movie... and I think there is). Certainly, for a while there after the film started, it didn’t quite seem to be what I would associate with Almodóvar, outside from the characteristic clean and bright visual style, of course. But as the film snakes along at a fairly cracking pace, you begin to recognise the key Almodóvar trademarks like the extended flashback sequences and the way they change your perceptions of the characters you’ve been living with for the last three quarters of an hour. It seems, after all, that we are on typical Almodóvar territory after all and I was almost disappointed at this turn of events in some ways but I really don’t know what I’m complaining about.

It’s certainly not boring and the colours and cinematography are absolutely cracking. There’s some absolutely brilliant stuff of Banderas giving a presentation at the start of the film via a computer where that particular light source (given a little help from the on-set lighting no doubt) gives him a severe case of sinister, old school 1930s Universal Horror lighting and this, combined with Antonia Banderas’ riveting performance, harking back to a long line of “mad scientists” of the motion pictures over the last 100 or more years, will certainly hold you in rapt and contemplative attention. All the performances in this movie, in fact, are of the usual high standard you would expect from the players in this director’s works... and that’s a big positive reason for giving this one some of your time.

A negative I had is that the musical cue so prominent in the theatrical trailer, and which gave the images on screen such a sinister and off-beat feel, only materialises briefly to score a small part of one sequence. It is not typical of the rest of Iglesias’ score throughout the movie which, although serviceable, was not really as stand out as I was expecting it to be... at least not within the context of supporting the film itself at any rate. I’m not sure how it will play outside of the film as a stand alone work.

My conclusion to this experiment is, thus, simple. The Skin I Live In is a double revenge movie. I’m not going to say why or how but you’ll realise why it is about halfway through seeing it. It has elegantly framed, clean shots with nice, bright colours and is leisurely edited, as you would expect from this director. I was personally left a little empty and uninspired by it and I think that was, more than anything, due to the impossible expectations I’d put on it. I can’t do anything, however, than recommend this fine movie to anyone who’s interested in it. Definitely worth a watch if Almodóvar is one of your directors of choice.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Doctor Who 6.8 Let's Kill Hitler



WHO do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler?

Doctor Who: Let's Kill Hitler
Airdate: August 27th 2011.
UK. BBC1

Warning: Yep. Loadsa spoilers bound to cascade into this review as I write it. Don’t be reading this if you haven’t seen the episode but are intending to at some point soon!

Well that was just utterly brilliant, mad fun and unbelievably did-you-really-just-drop-the-ball-that-badly-Mr.-Moffet-? both at the same time. Maybe it’s just because I’m three quarters of the way through what is almost certainly the dullest and most unredeemable series of Torchwood imaginable at the moment, but for once the parent show of the that particular spin-off managed to give me the heady cocktail of fast moving science-fiction and generally the best all round Doctor Who-ing in an incredibly long time.

There were, however, downsides to it and these downsides were pretty hefty dents in the Gallifreyan armour I'm afraid.

Still, it certainly went somewhere I didn’t expect the episode to go... well... even after it started telegraphing itself in the pre-credits sequence. And, of course, the wonderful episode title which they hit you with at the end of the mid-season finale, which by the way BBC, I’m so totally not buying into as it’s a stupidly ignorant contradiction in terms (mid-season "finale"... what rot!), “Let's Kill Hitler” is a bluff lured you into watching what was, admittedly, an astonishingly strong episode which, it has to be said, moved along at a rate of knots which I truly wasn’t expecting. Who says expositional dialogue set-ups for future episodes have to be dull? This one certainly wasn’t. And, of course, it was absolutely nothing really to do with killing Hitler whatsoever... but "Hey! Made you look!" I guess. That's what they were thinking, right?

So we had a very strong opening pre-credits sequence where a totally new character turns up after Amy and Rory have brilliantly summoned The Doctor with a dynamically scrawled home-made crop circle style rendering of his name... or term such as it is. After the titles have finished rolling you get a potted history of this character being best mates with Amy and Rory throughout their life together as they all grow older and by now you’re all probably thinking to yourself... well that’s probably another incarnation of River then is it? Because, you know, new character suddenly dropped out of the blue and given an entire history means it probably somebody important and, frankly, you’re not going to have many important people wandering around the Whoniverse that you don’t already know, are you? And since you know Moffet is hit and miss but he’s certainly a lot smarter than to drop a bit of story like that spun totally from air for the sake of convenience... then you do kinda suspect it. Jasper Fforde already caught me out that way with his "Granny Next" character in the "Thursday Next" novels which I thought was an incredibly bit of totally new character pop-up bad writing in the second book... until I read the fourth book. Same kinda thing here... just a ten minute wait instead of a couple of years in book terms for the resolution. So telegraphing early on then but, you know what, it doesn’t matter because it’s such a brilliant episode that you can forgive the writer from quickly running through the wet paint out of that corner he’s painted himself into.

Now then, the next bit does matter as it seems, at least on what we know so far, that it was a real clunker. River Song's regeneration into the woman we best know her as was a great entrance and Alex Kingston played the part with absolute relish and had fun in this “earlyish” version of River Song... however, after she’d poisoned The Doctor and been machine gunned by a troop of Nazis we hit a problem. She absorbed the bullets and flung out burts of “timelordy” energy to knockout her antagonists and came out with the line that you should never try to kill a gal mid-generation. Hang on a minute folks. We’ve already seen what happens when you kill a timelord mid-regeneration remember? He dies by a lake in the US of A! He doesn’t get a second wind and turn up right as rain does he? No... he gets burnt on the water by his friends.

But that’s alright... it was such a great episode anyway and I’ve got every confidence... well... every hope that Moffet will sort all that out before the final episode (please keep it together... please!).

So then... the timeline goes thus...

1. Amy and Rory give birth to Melody Pond.

2. Melody Pond is kidnapped and programmed to kill The Doctor.

3. Melody Pond, dressed as an astronaut and rising from the lake, kills the Doctor... but she must know she failed (or at least think that because there’s another younger version of The Doctor on the scene soon after). So she comes for him again but Amy shoots her... she regenerates at the end of Day of the Moon and goes on to...

4. Grow up with her parents as their best friend (making sure they get together to give birth to her) until she sabotages the TARDIS by shooting it, gets shot, regenerates into Alex Kingston and attempts to kill the Doctor with a poison kiss before saving him in a fit of “identity recognition guilt” by giving up the energy for her remaining lives (not that she’s strictly a timelord or anything but nice to know they’re now going to have to categorically address that rule at some point soon... maybe even in this current series).

And that was almost it... brilliant action, humour and witty banter all the way through except... yeah there was another big clunker which may or may not be the fault of the writer... could be an editing thing. Amy Pond robot zapped Amy and Rory and miniaturised them... why I don’t know because the robots were only going to kill them anyway. However, when Amy and Rory wake up miniaturised inside a mechanised Amy Pond... they instantly know that they have been... well... miniaturised inside a mechanised Amy Pond. How? Not even The Doctor’s figured that one out yet! How do these characters suddenly get this kind of knowledge? Maybe it was in a scene that was either not shot or edited out... or maybe it was just bad writing. Either way... it was a bit of a leap to ask of the audience I felt.

As was the other clunker. Amy sonics everyone on the mechanised Amy’s bracelets, including her own, which revokes everyones privileges over the mechanised beings that seem to be “running” the... well let’s call it a “mechanaut” shall we? I feel that’s a good term for it. So how is it, after that’s happened, Amy can still ask for access to their records. No family privileges for The Doctor’s files I would imagine.

So there was that... which was a real clunker of a how-to-move-a-story-on-device if you ask me. That and the fact that all the above timeline isn’t quite as complete as it should be. We have, after all, seen an eye-patch wearing version of River, echoing evil eye-patch lady, in the trailers for this half a season... so there’s more revelations coming I reckon.

But.... you know... wanted to like this one and it turns out I did. It delivered in spades and is easily the best episode of the current series so far for me. I know not everyone will agree with me as I heard bad things about the previews... so what? I can only judge it by my own standards and this one hit all the right “fun” buttons for me. Strong "mid-season opener" Mr. Moffet... even if that is a contradiction in terms!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Torchwood 4.7: Immortal Sins



Gwen Is Mightier
Than The Sword

Torchwood - Miracle Day Series 4
Episode 7: Immortal Sins
Airdate: August 25th 2011. UK. BBC1

Well, this really is going to be short and... well, probably not sweet. There are really no spoilers... depending on your definition of spoiler.

Last night I saw what was probably the most boring and completely superfluous episode of Torchwood I've ever seen. I went to bed thinking about how I was going to get through writing this review but, this morning, on the bus on the way in to work, I thought of two positive things I could say about it. As the day goes on though, I have to say that one of those positives is turning into a... "Meh... that’s no big deal."

Last night's episode was essentially two double-handers intercut with each other from two different time zones... the present Torchwood time zone with Captain Jack and Gwen picking up from last week’s not so great cliffhanger and 1927 America, with Jack and his newfound Italian lover of that era. The 1927 plot just suddenly dropped in out of the blue to suddenly try to start explaining the final solution of Torchwood: Miracle Day is, frankly, bad storytelling. If you’re going to do this... rather than pad out a long boring episode with great chunks of mind numbing, slow paced (for an action show like Torchwood) nothingness that could have easily been made up on the spot without any serious links to a “real” end solution embedded properly into the story, then you really want to do it in gradual tiny doses... say 5 minutes an episode, so you get a sense of history of the problem slowly developing over the course of the story and not just something that’s been dropped in from the “answer book” right near the end. People can easily follow that kind of stuff if you do this and, in fact, it tends to bed in people's minds more deeply if you do it more subtly like that!

My one positive on this episode was the absolute gorgeous, almost sepia tinted cinematography on the 1927 scenes in the episode (which were beautifully contrasted with Jack’s blue shirt) coupled with great shot compositions. But these sequences were rather tedious to say the least.

On the other hand, Jack and Gwen driving to a showdown seemed quite punchy and more like the old Torchwood... until i realised that watching wet paint dry cross cut with those 1927 scenes would have seemed more punchy and like the old Torchwood in comparison. Anything would. So, although the modern sections seemed faster paced and more relevant, considering that everything which was set up in last week's cliff hanger was undone in the last minute or two of this episode... I have to say that the modern sequences were even more of a letdown and it felt like some serious padding exercises were being performed on the running time here. Everything in this episode could have been done in ten minutes and edited into another similarly padded episode... so this really was quite insulting, at least to this viewer.

I don’t know where this is going anymore and I really don’t care that much either. This was shabby story structuring clear and simple. That’s my opinion anyway and if you don’t like it then don’t bother reading my reviews. This has been the most disappointing series of Torchwood ever... and I really like Torchwood. Please bring back the proper Torchwood after this! This is kinda heartbreaking to watch.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Creatures The World Forgot



To Ege Their Own

Creatures The World Forgot UK 1971
Directed by Don Chaffey
Warner Archives Edition Region 1

Well this is a film I never thought I’d be reviewing.

Creatures The World Forgot is the fourth and last in the cycle of BC movies that Hammer released in the 60s and 70s, the previous three being One Million Years BC, Slave Girls (aka Prehistoric Women) and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth. I’ve seen the first two entries in this cycle and, to be honest, I wasn’t really into them much... but I’ve been wanting to see this one for a while now because... oh heck, alright, I might as well come clean. I’ve been wanting to see this one ever since I saw Hammer’s publicity stills for the movie which featured a topless shot of one of the lead actresses (model Julie Ege) posing with a spear.

What can I say? I like Julie Ege and the proposition of seeing her running around the prehistoric flora and fauna sans clothing proved too much for me to resist... so I ordered one of those expensive Warner Archive DVDR editions from the US (via my "source" DVD dealer) just so I could see said spectacle while it’s still in print. As it turned out, after I watched it, the publicity shots from this movie featuring the delightful Miss Ege were, perhaps, a little bit too enthusiastic with their portrayal of the actual content of the film in question. That is to say, they flat out lied, as Miss Ege is wearing what can only be described as a “shaggy bra” to run around the prehistoric landscape with. This didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the movie too much, however. It could have been worse... she might not have appeared in it at all! As it was she turns up about two thirds of the way through which, in all fairness, is more screen time than she gets in most movies I’ve seen her in.

The movie is pretty much a silent movie... well not so much silent as there are certainly plenty of grunt and groans and “Hrwarhhh”s in it... and it does have an orchestral score. What I mean to say is... the film, like a couple of its predecessors, has no dialogue in it. I can’t say I’m complaining too much about that as things could have got a lot worse, a lot quicker in this movie if there’d been an actual dialogue script encumbering the actors. As it is, the film plays out in a fairly interesting and competent manner... telling the usual story for these kinds of movies, with various tribal leaders fighting both each other with their trusting spear wielding clans of cavemen... and amongst themselves as new people vie for leadership in their tribe. The tribes are fairly clearly marked through three generations of characters to make things easier in this particular prehistoric movie, just like teams on a football team. You have the dark haired cavemen who are a mixed bunch, mixing good guys and bad guys and a lust for blind violence if untempered by their new allies in another tribe, who consist of bearded, blonde, blue eyed cavemen and who posess a greater intelligence and who are clearly the good guys. A fairly good working alliance forged between the two tribes gets broken when the chief and father of twins, a black haired and blond haired boy, dies and it’s up to the two new candidates to bash it out amongst themselves.

The blond guy wins but then makes a philosophical evolutionary leap in his morality by refusing to kill his brother and not getting into any more violence. He splits off from the tribe (taking half of them with him) but his new babe Julie Ege keeps attracting other cavemen whom he has to ward off with his rugged masculinity and demonstrative grunting. Things get bad when his brother and his half a tribe catches up with him but his brother is captured by... um... a tribe of grey mud covered people with giant grey head masks that want to do some unspeakably horrendous killing of people in a style that predates 70s American slasher movies and so the two tribes temporarily reunite to vanquish this new menace. Then the fighting recommences with the kidnapping of Julie Ege by dark haired brother who puts her into what can only be described as a stone-age bondage scene... which is nothing compared to the heavily censored tree branch BDSM scene carried out in a ritualistic stone age dance party scene by the tribal medicine woman. There’s lots of interesting things going on in this movie including a younger new medicine woman born as lightening hits a tree who genuinely has a telepathic link with other members in the tribe... but lots of little threads and deviations like this are just not picked up and run with the way they might be in a longer or bigger budgeted movie. To be fair though, remember, there’s absolutely no dialogue in this movie so to get across as much of a “story” as they did is a good accomplishment from the writers, directors and performers etc.

Mario (The Vikings) Nascimbene’s score is a nice, percussion dominated orchestral score which acquits itself quite nicely with the visuals and it’s hard to factor in some of the derogatory little anecdotes of his incompetence I read about him in the book Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant Garde (reviewed here) a couple of months ago. It’s a score I wouldn’t mind owning if somebody would put it out on CD but, alas, I fear the days of Hammer music CDs are long gone now... they just don’t seem to sell as well as they should.

The one thing which puzzled me in a film with the title Creatures The World Forgot is the lack of creatures in it. True, there are two porcupines in a scene and there’s also a scene where a bear attacks a man... but there’s really not enough screen time to count these as the “creatures” of the title, surely? And besides, the so called bear is actually a man dressed in a quite laughable bear suit which the cameras have tried to disguise with angles and lighting as much as possible but which really doesn’t help to hide the fact that the bear suit is truly a less than lacklustre example of the “bear costume maker’s” art. So the title of the movie might better be Creatures The Writers Forgot To Put In The Movie on this one methinks. Or perhaps the title refers to Julie Ege and a few of the other “cave gals” that populate this hairy, stone-age, love and wrestle fest.

One thing I am certain of is that the direction on this one certainly felt a lot more competent than in the first two Hammer entries in this genre and it was altogether a lot more fun too. Definitely worth checking out if you’re into this kind of thing but would suggest the expensively priced Warner Archives DVD-R Edition is something you might want to have a good hard think about first.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Maniac



Just Another Maniac Monday

Maniac 1980 US
Directed by William Lustig
Blue Underground Region 1 DVD

Warning: I maniacally share spoilers here...
you have been warned!

I’m really not sure what it is I can really say about the almost legendary Maniac now that I’ve seen it. It’s not quite the kind of movie I would usually watch and, although I adore Italian Giallo movies, which were an obvious influence on this movie (Argento’s muse Daria Nicolodi was originally cast as the female lead but dropped out a week or so before shooting, prompting a quick recast) those influences are very much channelled into the less ostentatious and more grubby illegitimate stepchild of the genre, the American Psycho Slasher.

Even so, though, now I’ve actually watched the thing, I’m reluctant to write it off as just another “slasher on the cheap” quickie because the acting is actually quite interesting and the writing, in some of the scenes, does give one pause for thought.

Now regular readers of my articles will know right away that there is only one reason why this movie is even a blip on my radar... yeah, you guessed it, Caroline Munro is the actress that director Lustig (who now runs the legendary DVD label Blue Underground, who put out this particular DVD) and co-writer/lead actor Joe Spinell hired to replace Nicolodi... and they couldn’t have made a better choice as she enhances their movie no end... but you guessed I’d say that, right?

When I saw the cover of the recent 30 Year Anniversary DVD of Maniac I also had another reason to buy it (as if Caroline Munro were not enough reason in herself) in that I recognised the artwork from back in the days when I was in my early teens and Starlog magazine always had a great advert, usually on the back cover, for various soundtrack albums and Maniac was always on there (along with The Avengers, Mad Max and Goblin’s addictive Tenebrae score if memory serves). So that was another reason to check out this movie right there.

Maniac stars Jo Spinell in the title role as a... well you know... a maniac (named Frank Zito). He... in the popular parlance, which it isn’t anything of the kind because I just made it up but I’ll go ahead and use it anyway... “gives good stab.” Now Joe Spinell is an actor I’ve talked about before in my reviews of two other movies he was in with the gorgeous Ms. Munro, Star Crash (reviewed here) and The Last Horror Film (reviewed here). He always comes across to me as someone who should have made it big but didn’t. He’s a much maligned and underrated actor it seems to me and if his “maniacal monologues” in this movie don’t convince you of that, his charming dialogues with Ms Munro when the character has his “normal” head on will hopefully make you realise, dialogue aside, that there’s more going on in that head of his than you can necessarily see on the surface unless you take the time to look beneath. That is to say... don’t dismiss this guy when you first see him... give his characters (usually quite sleazy characters to be fair) time to grow on you.

There’s some nice things in this movie to take note of, like the special effects by Tom Savini (who also takes a small role in this one) which are mostly top notch... although the very first beach throat slashing did look a little like a theatrical razor “squirting” blood, it has to be said. And how do people in movies getting their throats slashed manage to scream every time... surely that possibility contradicts what’s actually being depicted? But there are some notable gory moments which fans of this particular genre might enjoy seeing done so well... like a scalping sequence and a Tom Savini shotgun-to-the-exploding-head-special which is actually quite visceral.

There are also a couple of bad things in it which aren’t that great, it has to be said. Asides from that opening throat slash, there was an absolute howler of a continuity error during a sequence where a young lady has been chased by Spinell into an underground train station. She lets a train go and as it pulls out she is totally alone at the station... except on the shot from inside of the train as it pulls away, where the platforms are full of people... now that’s bad continuity! That being said, however, the following sequence where she is hiding in the bathroom, which probably seemed old fashioned and corny to the jaded souls watching these kinds of movies even then... is actually quite fraught with suspense and tension. Even though you know the inevitable is going to happen... this doesn’t stop the build up from lightly setting you on edge... which for this genre of movie is pretty much a necessity I would have thought.

And, of course, Caroline Munro is absolutely superb, again, in this one. She really does elevate the sequences she’s in (playing an Italian Fashion Photographer) and her acceptance of Joe Spinell’s character as a possible future boyfriend is made completely believable by her genuine sense of empathy and charm. She really gives this movie a lift where it’s needed most and helps catapult the film towards its final destination where two cops bust in on Frank who may, or may not, be dead already.

This film may be a bit grubby and sleazy in places (like a standard slasher movie of the period crossed with some of the atmosphere, in places, of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver) but it is, for the most part, quite well crafted and I can see why it gained (and still has) a passionate enough audience 30 years later to put out a double disc edition on both Blu Ray (the dreaded format) and DVD. The transfer on this one is probably as good as it’s ever going to get (as it should be with the director running the DVD label) and it comes loaded with some great extras including a modern interview with the amazing Caroline (woohoo) and a not so great piece of interview footage of her from the year of the films release where the film is unfairly treated as less than appetising fare by the hosts of a TV show and where she barely holds her own against them in its defence (but defend it she does... this is the woman you want pulling for your team when you want to do some publicity spots).

For fans of the genre... or fans of Ms. Munro (like myself) then this DVD is well worth picking up and shelling out the hard earned cash for. This is pretty much as good a condition this movie is ever going to be seen in until the next crazy format change is upon us... so please take a look for it if you have the time and the inclination.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Fourth Kind

Depending On The Fourth Kindness of Strangers

The Fourth Kind 2009 USA/UK
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi
Entertainment In Video Region 2

Okay, here’s the lowdown for all you spoiler junkies.

For starters, there’s nothing really I could possibly spoil, by the very nature of the subject matter of this movie, that the title hasn’t already given away. Seriously, if you don’t know what Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind are (even though I’ll recap it later on for “extra” clarification) then don’t read this review before you see the movie.

Secondly, and perhaps unfortunately, this is where people who don’t know me very well (or, you know, at all) get to realise what a fruit loop I really am about certain subjects which I have a passionate interest in. Whereas people who do know me will probably just tut at me and point.

Okay, so I took another look at this one the other night and I actually thought I’d reviewed this film when I first started up this blog but I couldn’t find it on here so I did a quick check of the dates and realised I’d actually seen it in cinemas waaay back in those halcyon days of... um... 2009. So I didn’t review it and so here I am... being probably one of the few people, I would imagine, who actually quite liked this movie.

Now then, if you don’t know already but you’re still here reading this, a close encounter of the fourth kind is the term for... after sighting (1), physical evidence (2) and contact (3)... alien abduction and other up close and personal altercations with an extra terrestrial species that go above and beyond the definition of contact. Now most people would probably laugh at the concept of alien abduction, or at least raise an eyebrow ironically in the general direction of the person bringing the topic up. Heck, most people would do the same if you just mention a UFO... but I have been deeply interested in UFOs since I was a kid and then in later life when, I remember, about 15 years ago I watched a movie adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s self proclaimed true experiences with alien abduction (called Communion). This movie scared me sufficiently to make me read the book and from then on I was hooked. I remembered reading a news report from years before that saying, something along the lines of, “dear old dodgy horror novelist turned fruit loop Whitley Strieber has spent a small fortune securing his home from other wordly intruders again” and this added a certain credibility to the account I was reading because, whether these things had happened to Mr. Strieber or not, it was quite apparent that he obviously believed there was something horrendous going on his life. So I read the book and... it was quite chilling.

But that wasn’t enough because I needed to find out why someone who may, or may not, have had these encounters could be so sincere... so I started reading a lot more books on the subjects (by credible people such as world-renowned psychologists, psychiatrists and government hired debunkers who couldn’t quite bring themselves to unequivocally debunk) and, to my absolute horror (and it really was my absolute horror), I began to realise that the overwhelming evidence (yes, recorded and found evidence which is just routinely ignored or sometimes even stolen) points squarely at the fact that there is something both highly unusual (if not extra terrestrial) and worthy of serious concern going on in the world.

After a few years (and one short story I wrote) later, I had to stop reading this stuff. Things were too damning and frustrating and, frankly, I was losing most nights of sleep because of the nature of this particular subject and its relationship with the “night terrors” phenomenon. I was going loopy and I was running scared ... well okay, for me it was perhaps modestly ambling scared! Either way... I started actively trying not to think about this stuff when I went to bed at night and hoped that would be an end to it.

Still, every now and then an itch needs to be scratched and when I saw the trailer for this movie... I knew I would be straight around my local cinema to see it when it hit the screens.

So okay. That’s why this kind of movie is something which is always going to grab my attention and finger pointing and laughter, while not welcome, would be generally preferred to the option that I be reminded that I, quite against my will or desire, genuinely believe in this stuff.

So what’s the movie like?

Well it’s a horror movie, of a sort, no two ways about it. It starts off with the lead actress talking to the camera as herself and explaining who she is portraying in this movie and that actual footage of the people involved in these events in real life will be intercut into the movie alongside the actors. This is great and gives a brilliant sense of truth to the terror as you go through the movie, which is both shot remarkably well and edited with a certain dynamism to various split screen shots which is so “right on” that you might not even notice how powerful the editing is until you get to a second viewing. Seriously, the added “footage” lends the movie an almost “Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity” sensibility and at the moment these kinds of movies are still very effective with the general public at large.

However, there’s a downside to this movie... two downsides in fact.

One is I’m pretty sure the degraded in quality “real footage” is actually not “real” footage at all, just shot with a different bunch of actors to give the movie a sense of authenticity. Secondly, there’s only so far you can take an alien abduction story before you get to a point where the audience’s suspension of belief isn’t stretched to breaking point. So some may feel this movie is a tad anti-climactic but... personally I didn’t have a problem with it.

Ok... so there’s two things right there that’s wrong with the movie. Not actually a true story as claimed on the tin and with a bit of a weak third act (although still pretty terrifying for the likes of me, when I’m this close to the subject matter). That being said, however, it’s got a heck of a lot going for it.

Standout performances by great actors such as Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas and Will Patton are matched, if not blown out of the water, by the cast of unknowns playing the “real” (or pseudo-real) versions of the people. I’ve already mentioned how great the editing and photography are but the music score also serves its purpose fairly well and as for the research that went into the scripting...! All I can say is that if this specific event isn’t a true story... it damn well ought to be. The writers have managed to encapsulate and include many of the main common elements of modern “abduction lore” and presented it in a way that truly shows how terrifying the recollection of these experiences can be. And if you don’t know what I mean by common traits, let me ask you this... how does an “abductee” from Western civilisation and an “abductee” from a native tribe completely untouched by fellow man and free from any experience of any form of media or civilisation describe exactly the same events, sequences and antagonists as each other? This stuff gets kinda scary the more little Russian Dolls you open on the subject... and the filmmakers have really done a good job at weaving a dramatic tale out of these common threads and themes and turning them into a scary movie... even if it is a scary movie which was pretty poorly received at the box office.

So ultimately on this one, I don’t have an unbiased opinion. I would have to warn cynics of this kind of material to approach with caution... but I would recommend you do approach at some point if you’re into low budget, psychologically suggestive sci-fi horror movies. But, if you are an impressionable soul, it’s probably remiss of me if I don’t warn you that if you start reading into the subject and doing all the research like I did... you might not sleep so easy in the future.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Thank You Caroline!



A Big Thank You to
Caroline Munro!

Just a quick word to say thanks very much to the lovely Caroline Munro for giving me a mention on her official fansite (see screen shot above). If you ever read this Caroline, that just plain made my year!

I clean forgot to put a link to her website when I posted my 300th Blog Post... a terrible oversight on my part. But never fear, here’s a link to the charming Caroline’s official site here... http://www.carolinemunro.org

And here’s a link to my 300th Blog Post art - The Faces of Caroline Munro, which prompted that wonderful response in the first place - http://nuts4r2.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-300th-blog-post.html

Thanks again Caroline!

Torchwood 4.6 - The Middle Men



Middle Of The Road

Torchwood - Miracle Day Series 4
Episode 6: The Middle Men
Airdate: August 18th 2011. UK. BBC1

Warning: Kinda spoilers I guess.

OK then. This is going to be another short one because I really don’t have much to say on this one.

Last nights episode of Torchwood was... not that hot. And when I say not that hot I mean, mostly pointless and some might say unwatchable. I am the last person I know (other than people on twitter) who is still watching this train wreck of a fourth series.

Last week we saw one of the regular characters being burnt alive for no real reason, it seems - hopefully they’ll have addressed that little loophole and it’s a clever and complicated ploy, leading into a brilliant explanation for that. This week’s episode felt more like an autopsy of overemotional characters merely reacting to those events and dealing with the aftermath in extended and mostly uninspiring scenes that might have been better handled in a five or ten minute sequence instead of the majority of an episode.

To borrow a conclusion from the awesome Hypnogoria in his review of last weeks episode (his website can be found here at http://hypnogoria.com), it really does now seem like the original Torchwood cast have become guest stars in their own show. The majority of the “action” in this weeks episode was based with Rex and Esther trying to come to terms with the events of last week... but it all just felt like “We’re going to get to the end of the show too quickly guys! Can you pad it out for a few episodes do you think?” And that’s exactly what most of this weeks Torchwood felt like... uninspired padding.

There were some nice little sequences with Captain Jack and then Gwen, especially involving those “special” contact lenses inherited from previous incarnations of the show. Ultimately, though, these special items have been subverted in the last few minutes of the show in the way that I’d thought they were going to be used in Series Three, Children Of Earth, when that season aired... so it all just seems like a logical, dramatic extension to me. And Gwen, while she’s been nicely handled so far in comparison to some of the characters in this incarnation of the show, did seem a little gung ho and “out of character” this week. Hurling a brick through a car window to break into it is one thing but... blowing up a government institution in such a way that, supposedly, kills loads of totally innocent people to make a point doesn’t really seem her style in my book.

Also, the one new feature of the current series which is actually kind of interesting, that new feature being Bill Pullman’s portrayal of Oswald Danes, is completely absent from this episode. It’s like they totally forgot about it because... well, presumably because they had too much “padding” to contend with this week?

Either way you look at it, this series of Torchwood has only had a couple of really cracking episodes which were a shadow of the former incarnations of the series and this weeks contribution was one of the dullest and unnecessary yet. It really hurts me to be this harsh about a show I’ve been watching for a while (which is made by so many hard working and creative people pouring their sweat and life’s blood into these episodes) as there are very few TV programmes that I actually do watch these days... but there’s no point in writing a review and not telling it like it is. Torchwood needs to get better very quickly... not because I think it has a chance of being picked up for a fifth series... but because I’d rather see it end on a magnificent high and not leave a bitter taste in the mouths of die hard fans of the show. Maybe I’m a fool but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed. Getting painful though.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Beautiful Lies (aka De Vrais Mensonges)



Tautou Parlour

Beautiful Lies (aka De Vrais Mensonges) 2010 France
Directed by Pierre Salvadori
Screening at UK cinemas

Well I hate to admit to being this gullible on my own blog but when it comes to the new French film starring Audrey Tautou, I found myself inside the cinema watching a movie, very much under false pretences. That is to say... the publicity is way "out there" when it comes to selling this film. Note to the people who did the marketing on this one... it’s no good marketing something as having a particular proposition or set of qualities when your product is not up to actually delivering on those promises. This movie, and I quote now from the poster which I saw on the tube on the way into the heart of London, “...matches the heights of Amelie.”

Okay, now while it may not be a very wise move for anyone to make a comparison to a movie directed by a very strong and unmistakable auteur such as Jeunet, this film in particular is way off the mark. As far as I could make out, the only common ground this film shares with Amelie was the fact that Audrey Tautou herself was in it and, at a few points in Beautiful Lies, she does forge a couple of letters... but then again so did Cyrano De Bergerac. Jeaunet’s films, even when they misfire slightly, are visual and aural treats, filled bursting to the brim with ideas. However, contrary to this image, readily conjured in our minds by wiley marketing people, we have a bit of a one trick pony of a movie with this... and that particular pony, it seems to me, was ready for the knackers yard a long time ago.

Okay... so, disappointment in my expectations for this movie aside... let me tell you what this movie isn’t.

Well, it’s certainly not a terrible movie, that’s for sure. It’s likeable enough and competently handled by the director... so that’s one on the plus side.

Another thing on the plus side is that all the actors and actresses, as seems to be a given with most French movies (or at least the ones which actually get a release on our shores), are all absolutely perfect. Tautou is, well she’s Tautou, and her comic expressions and timing are given a thorough work out in this one. Her co-star, Sami Bouajila, is an absolutely pitch perfect and reliable leading man also and the characters drawn in the script are all very likable and will win your sympathies with a special mention to the actress playing Tautou’s mother, Nathalie Baye, who is absolutely gorgeous and electrifying in her role.

All this great stuff, however, does not disguise the fact that, unlike it’s poster quote, Beautiful Lies is about as far away from the brilliance of a Jeunet film you can get without actually being rubbish. And it’s not rubbish.

What it is, when all is said and done, is a kind of French farce but one which plays out more with the feel of any American blockbuster, romantic comedy movie of the last ten years. The ideas are flat and almost lifeless and, although many people in the audience would be satisfied with a damned, good romantic comedy, which I’m sure it was... this one left me feeling cold and in a less than fuzzy mood that I’d been duped into the cinema on the promise of another extension of the cinematic art... as a opposed to a warm, romantic feel-good movie which, if truth be told, didn’t really leave me feeling that good at all.

So, short review for once because I can’t think of anything really that interesting to say about this movie. If this got more marketing and more marketplace awareness that it’s actually “out there” in this country then I’m certain it would do really well with audiences and make the studio some money. It really isn’t a bad little romantic souffle. I don’t know that this movie is, regrettably, going to get that kind of exposure to the audience it needs to reach (who might not put up with a foreign language movie in the first place) and I imagine the kind of audience it will reach is probably going to be as dissapointed with it as I was. All in all though, if you like light and fluffy romantic comedies, then this really is worth a trudge down to your local cinema to check out... or you might do better renting out a decent Katy Hepburn/Cary Grant movie instead. Your choice but don’t delay because I reckon this one wont be in our cinemas for very long. As I said before, I doubt it will find it’s audience in this country.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


The Apes Of Wrath
Rise of the Planet of the Apes 2011 USA
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Screening at UK cinemas

Warning. There are definitely some spoilers swinging their way through the trees at you in this one.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Planet Of The Apes movies... probably because one of my early cinematic memories as a child was of Roddy McDowall as Ceaser in Battle For The Planet Of The Apes shouting out defiantly... “Fight like Apes!” I revisit the movies every seven or eight years and my opinion of how good each one is in relation to each other never falters.
Of those five I think the first, third and fourth movies... Planet Of The Apes, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes are all great and entertaining movies worth anyones time. The second movie Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, which at least has a kick-ass ending where Chuck Heston blows the earth and everyone on it up, is really only worth watching as connective tissue for the first and third movies and as for number five, the aforementioned Battle For The Planet Of The Apes... well lets just say that, although it’s a strong childhood memory, this film is probably best left in ones memories (where it might get better with time) and by that I mean a far distant memory.

When Tim Burton’s “reboot” arrived back in 2001, I was slightly cynical (especially of the score... how could anyone possibly compete with Jerry Goldsmith’s groundbreaking score for the original version... luckily Elfman is also a master of his craft and the result is quite striking)... but didn’t hate it, although some people did and were really “going for it” in terms of criticising both the movie and the director. My feelings on this are that if you are going to hire such an “auteur” of a director as Tim Burton... then you let him get on with it and the movie wins or fails on that artists personal tastes. The result in this particular case was a fairly successful mélange of actors and actresses, moved around on screen by a master stylist. That the film was another triumph of style over content was not surprising, but at least with someone like Burton that’s half the fun. Burton’s failed reboot (seriously people, where are the sequels?) is also the only Apes movie not to be set primarily on the planet Earth, but a distant planet. Only the last few minutes of Burton’s movie get us back on our home planet, for an ending which was perhaps more surprising in its obviousness than the anticipated surprise itself.

I wasn’t much looking forward to Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, I have to say... why did we need yet another reboot? However, the initial teaser trailers were good and from what I could make out, the film looked like it was going to play out as almost a direct remake of the fourth movie, Conquest Of The Planet of the Apes. That got me a little more interested and now, after having seen it, I can very much confirm that this is a remake/homage of that fourth movie, although the events and reasons for having a super-intelligent ape (also named Ceaser) in this movie are different due to the fact that we are not being expected to bring any baggage from any of the early movies to come out and play in this one. So Ceaser has the same qualities as the original character... just not any of the same origins as the original film's version of the character. This works fine, though, as the motivation is pretty much the same.

James Franco is his usual brilliant self in this movie, playing the main “good guy” human and befriender of Ceaser. The movie cracks along at a pace after he rescues Ceaser from his own laboratories (working on a cure for Alzheimer’s) and raises him until things get a little bumpy and out-of-hand for our little group and Ceaser is incarcerated in an Ape sanctuary. It is here that he learns to fear men (yeah, that horrible little Malfoy kid has definitely got himself typecast) and strike out on his own by raising his ultra-smart Ape army to conquer the streets of the U.S of A.

There’s lots to love in this movie which, for once for a modern Hollywood blockbuster, doesn’t feel like it’s trying to string together big set pieces... instead, relying on a natural progression of the story via a solidly written screenplay to coax the audience along its emotive trajectory. While the film isn’t exactly subtle, it does hit the kind of emotional highs and lows that most people would want from this kind of journey and it’s also got some damn fine acting in it, not least from it’s main human protagonist played, as I mentioned earlier, by James Franco. Now Franco is a guy I didn’t have much respect for when I first saw him but over the years I’ve come to appreciate what a great actor he is and his performance certainly sells any implausibilities in the film for those of the audience who are less familiar with the lineage of this particular franchise.
Talking of which, fans of the original movies will be pleased at the plethora of references to the previous movies running through this one. From actors names through to Ceaser playing with a model of the Statue Of Liberty... this film has sci-fi geek heaven written all over it. In fact, if anything, my main criticism of the film would be that there are way too many references in this one... they even quote whole lines from the previous films and, due to my memory of those classic originals, I even knew what the first word out of Ceaser’s mouth was going to be.

That was another thing which this movie lacks... it has a good journey to arrive at a slightly weak ending. There’s no sucker punch like there was waiting at the end of the first three movies and for most of this one's duration I was expecting the ending to be the revelation that the apes can talk in the last five minutes... perhaps a bit obvious but these CGI apes are much more convincing as apes (although I obviously miss the Ape costumes) and the audience was obviously not expecting it as much as I was because when Ceaser finally does take a stand and say “NO!”... there were actually some gasps from the audience. I remember thinking to myself, “c’mon people, it’s a Planet Of The Apes movie... of course they’re going to talk” but I guess it’s a testament to the magical spell the movie is weaving that so many people weren’t expecting it by then. This moment comes about three quarters of the way through the movie and it’s a very strong moment and it comes at exactly the right time when a dramatic moment needs to be got across... unfortunately that leaves nowhere to go for the ending which is pretty much a “ride off into the sunset” variation to set up the sequel. True, there’s a little tag after the credits have played out a couple of minutes to elaborate on the future of mankind but, frankly, this scene really wasn’t needed as the director had already spent a lot of time labouring this point with a supporting character within the main body of the movie. We know the human race is going to be drastically diminishing in numbers fairly soon, thank you very much.

These minor criticisms aside though, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is a really solid entry in the franchise and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t kick start the series back off into another series of films... something which the Burton movie was unable to do. Definitely go and see this if you are a fan of the originals because it certainly doesn’t do those classics a disservice and, even if you aren’t a fan of the originals, still go and check this one out because you don’t really need any prior experience with the original films as it’s a good piece of popcorn fodder in its own right. You’ll go ape for this one, I reckon.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Torchwood - Miracle Day 4.5 - The Categories of Life



Catastrophic Categories

Torchwood - Miracle Day Series 4
Episode 5: The Categories of Life
Airdate: August 11th 2011. UK. BBC1

Spoiler Warning: Here be spoilers... duly warned.

Ok... so as I was watching this one, what was probably the dullest episode of Torchwood so far, somebody else in the room proclaimed... “They’ve really killed off Torchwood haven’t they.” He wasn’t talking about Torchwood, the once undercover agency of the Government set up by Queen Victoria after an encounter with The Doctor and Rose Tyler. He was talking about the programme itself, which is now not even a shadow of it’s former glory which it found in its second and third series. And though I wanted to defend the programme against this comment, I realised that I really couldn’t. He was right on the mark about this one. This isn’t Torchwood... it’s merely an ailing spin-off.

So far, in my humble opinion, we’ve only had two really cracking episodes. We’re at the halfway mark now of this serial and so that means that less than 50% of the episodes, in my book anyway, have been less than succesful. That these are not stand alone stories just rubs salt into the wounds because the problem with serials is that their structure ensures that they tend to get judged on the sum of their parts, rather than on those particular individual parts.

This week’s individual part was quite surprisingly dire and unrevealing when it played out. The camerawork was a little more dynamic than the previous episode... not exactly in the same style as earlier episodes but not as static as last week’s episode... the camerawork didn’t really save it, however. And bang goes my theory that different writers determine the success of an episode, as this writer had written a really fun episode earlier in the series and then... well this one dematerialises up it’s own allusions in a really uninteresting manner. I know I’m being harsh now, perhaps, but honestly people... we’re half way through the series now. Unless we have 5 really solid episodes in a row, things are going to be hard to turn around and certainly they won’t help attract back the audience that’s already jumped ship on the programme. This is why a series/serial needs to start off strong and ratchett up the tension... not dawdle about in its own ethos. I’m really beginning to see how that few great things about the show... Captain Jack’s larger than life personality, Gwen Cooper's hard-gal-with-a-heart Welshness and Bill Paxton’s show stopping performances as Oswald Danes... are unable to outweigh what this programme has slowly become.

Last weeks teaser had footage of Gwen Cooper apologising for the inadequacy of Torchwood against the horrible revelations they’d found and said revelations were promised. Although it had been done before in Torchwood, it still created a certain sense of promise or tension. However, not only was this episode not in any way revelatory... it didn’t even feature any of that footage of Gwen on the video. What’s up with that? Did it all get cut at the last minute... too late to change the previous teaser? Was it in the American version of the episode but not the English version? What’s going on?

The so called “revelation” of the health cmaps being Nazi-like ovens to burn the “returned but severely damaged” dead seems to make no apparent sense as to why the company in question would set about creating this situation in the first place (hopefully I’m just not realising the bigger picture yet) and instead seemed to be a dramatic device so we could watch one of the central characters burn to death. I was expecting one of the regular characters to die soon, in the traditional Torchwood manner, but not for that death to be so clumsily reached. It wasn't the fact that it was an unneccessary death that made it so rubbish... unneccessary deaths can be quite dramatic... but this whole plot device seemed to be there just to serve this scene and there were much better ways they could have dramatically pushed a point like this across than have a character just happen to get shot and stored in an oven until another character was in place to witness her being burnt alive. Not particularly smart and, in this particular case considering this kind of death-by-fire almost always gets under my skin, rendered surprisingly unshocking by the way it was shot. Can’t put my finger on what was wrong exactly but the timing or something of the build up and release just seemed wrong and a litle antiseptic. This is just no good.

So this episode has left me feeling like the next five episodes, which I will watch because I hate giving up on anything, will be something of a chore to witness. I can only hope that things step up a pace both in terms of action and in terms of general intelligence. I’ll keep writing these little reviews of them more as a diary for myself of what I thought of them at the time as opposed to the hope that anyone’s going to bother to read them. After all, with a series that’s become a dull echo of the greatness it once had... why would anyone want to read the autopsy after. But please, read some of my other reviews if you get a chance... they’re not all this negative and you may find something you like better.

All the best,

NUTS4R2